Masamba first ventured to the home of Samba in 1999, with six member of the group completing a month-long excursion, taking in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife and Olinda. Needless to say, we were hooked, and 20 years later, Masamba members are still visiting Rio to see the very best of the music we love, and to enjoy the amazing spirit of the Brazilian people.
This year, we undertook a relatively straightforward trip, taking in just Sao Paulo and Rio – straightforward, but very busy! Over 20 years, two things had happened. Firstly, the availability of information in the media and particularly on the internet has vastly increased. Between the Rio Show section of the O Globo newspaper, and the excellent Samba Beats website run by our good friend Gabriel Lopes, it is now much easier to find out what’s happening, when and where. However, with that said, things can be very fluid on the samba scene, and things don’t always happen as advertised – a certain amount of patience and flexibility is required, in order to keep the blood pressure down.
We chose the timing of the trip to purposely miss carnaval itself. There are primarily three reasons for this: Firstly, everything gets much more expensive in the big cities during carnaval. In Rio, for example, most of the hotels increase their booking fees several-fold, and in addition, many of them only want to take block bookings for the entire five days of carnaval. The main parades in the Sambadrome are also an expensive night out, although we would still recommend that everyone should try to witness the spectacle and excitement of the Grupo Especial parades at least once in their lives!
Secondly, street crime increases during carnaval. Perhaps it is because some of those who don’t have money feel it even more when everyone else is celebrating, or maybe it’s because there are so many rich tourists in town. Either way, you have to have your wits about you, and carry as little cash as possible when out and about on the streets.
However, the main reason for us going early, is that it is easier to get up close and personal with the samba schools, either at their weekly ensaio geral (general rehearsal), or their ensaio na rua (street rehearsals). Here, we get the opportunities to actually see musicians up close and learn some of the elaborate phrasings and breaks they play – something you can’t see from 100 feet away in the sambadrome. Also, and this is very important for us, we get to connect with the amazing energy of the people in the samba schools, whether it is being roped in to dance, or as simple as a musician or dancer waving to you!
This brings me to another thing we really noticed on this trip, but were aware of all along. Most of our Brazilian musician friends think that we are STONE MAD, going out to the favelas to visit the samba schools. Some of them, self-professed Carioca da Gema (think a Rio version of a Cockney), will happily admit that they have never been to these neighbourhoods, and never want to go to them either! Don’t get me wrong, these areas can be dangerous, and it may have been the case that we’ve heard gunshots, or felt uncomfortable the odd time, but to get to the real spirit of samba, we have to get to the communities where the samba schools are based.
Myself and Julie jumped a quick flight down to Sao Paulo, and though it was a short visit, not even two full days, there was a lot to be done. Our primary focus in Sao Paulo was to re-connect with our friends and supporters in the Contemporanea Instrument company. Contemporanea have endorsed Masamba’s work for many years, and we are always made feel more than welcome at this famous factory.
The factory becomes somewhat of a pilgrimage for many percussionists, especially in carnaval season, and while we were there, we were lucky enough to meet two amazing percussionists: local player Luan Barbosa and Steven Brezet, one of the percussionists with the world-renowned Snarky Puppy. Needless to say, a percussion jam ensued throughout the factory, with everything and anything being pressed into action! At lunch afterwards, kindly hosted by Roberto from Contemporanea, the possibility of all sorts of projects and collaborations were discussed – exciting stuff.
The ’work’ over for the day, it was time for some music. Since re-locating to Sao Paulo, Masamba member Julie Collins joined the well-known Bloco Me Lembra Que Eu Vou, directed by Silvanny Sivuca. I had seen Silvanny in action many years before, when she was part of an excellent local project – Meninos do Morumbi. Even back then, Silvanny already stuck out from the crowd as an excellent percussionist, and it’s great to see that her career trajectory has continued apace! The bloco itself is definitely one of the better ones musically. They rehearse regularly and there is an expectation of high musical standards. Similar to Masamba, they play several different styles of Afro Brazilian music, but unlike Masamba, everyone sticks to the same instrument for the entire rehearsal. This makes sense, as these blocos are mainly parade groups, so swapping around would be difficult. It was great to sit in on this rehearsal, and to see Julie doing so well, bopping about with her shaker in hand!
The night got even better, when an old friend of mine, Fernanda Amaral, showed up to say hello. Fernanda is a dancer, choreographer and dance teacher, who used to be based in Cardiff and worked with us in the very early days, on a number of projects. Fernanda relocated to SP a few years back, and is doing really well, focusing a lot of her energies on working with people with special needs. It was a real treat to have the opportunity to catch up with Fernanda, and to chat about old, and potentially new, projects.
Just to put some icing on the cake, we relocated to a funky bar for our chat, where none other than Claudio Santana was playing in a Choro group with Deni Domenico and Matheus Motta from Choro Moço. Claudio visited Dublin to work with Masamba back in 2001 and we have always kept in touch since. We were lucky enough to catch up with Choro Moço when they visited Dublin in 2013 . Despite being in a bar 5,000 miles from home, we were like locals!
Our 2ndday in Sao Paulo was no less interesting, and could lead to some long-term developments for Masamba! In the morning, I had a meeting with Gill Hennebury from the Irish Consulate in Brazil. The meeting was primarily to describe the work Masamba has been doing in Dublin, and to express our desire to develop more links with the carnaval community in Brazil. We discussed how Masamba could make contact with local groups, and how exchanges might be funded. Clearly, nothing could be finalised on the day, but it is great to know that our government is supportive of our work.
In the afternoon, it was back to my buddies in Team Contemporanea. If the theme the day before was around performance, the second meeting was themed around education. Roberto had invited our old friend Ari Colares and a new contact Alua Nascimento to meet us. Over another amazing lunch, we discussed all things to do with teaching samba, whether it be with bands, young people, people with disabilities, or whatever. It was so positive to be able to share experiences with other educators, and also to see how much store that the Contemporanea company puts on educational work. We promised to keep in touch, and to share notes!
With that, it was out to the airport and back to Rio – less than 48 hours in Sao Paulo, but about a week’s worth of work and play squeezed into that – very much the Sampa way!
The Sao Paulo section was worth dealing with in such detail, as it was where a lot of the formal ‘business’ of the trip was done. In the interests of brevity, I will deal with the rest of the trip under several headings: Samba School Quadra rehearsals, street rehearsals, blocos, workshops, tourism and friends.
As mentioned above, our main reason for travelling so far before the actual carnaval dates, is that it offers us the opportunity to go to what the samba schools refer to as ‘ensaio geral’ or ‘general rehearsal’. This is the centre point of the week for each samba school, and is a rehearsal, a live show, an information meeting, a fundraiser, and a social event all rolled into one. They are also great fun!
Depending on the samba school, and the set-up of their rehearsal space, it is sometimes possible to see the bateria or percussion section up close, but often, they are hidden away on a balcony, and it is impossible to see what they are doing. The best schools in this respect are Portela and Viraduoro, who practice at ground level. The worst (that we have seen) are Mangueira and Salgueiro who are up very high, and impossible to see.
An interesting development this year, is that these rehearsals have been spread out more over the week, which means that we can get to see more of them. For many years, the vast majority of the rehearsals happened on Saturday nights, and on our best ever night, we did manage to get in and out of three rehearsals, but it was far from ideal. This year, we got to see some schools we have never seen before and managed to get out to see something almost every night – great fun, but exhausting!
The Samba Beats website was very useful in letting us know what was happening, and knowing it’s author Gabriel personally, meant that we could also double-check anything that we weren’t sure about. Also, most samba schools have very active Instagram accounts, which are obviously in Portuguese, but often easy enough to figure out. For us, the plan was generally to agree the night before what we would like to do each day, and then spend an hour in the morning online, and double checking that everything was going ahead.
On this trip, we managed to see the following samba schools in their quadras: Sao Clemente, Portela, Unidos da Tijuca, and Imperatriz.
Our favourites were Portela and Imperatriz because of the welcoming atmosphere amongst musicians and others alike. This year, we managed to get to Portela three times over two weeks, and as mentioned above, Portela’s bateria rehearse at ground level, and there is an opportunity to get a spot close to all the drumming action. Over the three rehearsals, we went from regular spectators to having our photo taken with the Director of the Bateria, Mestre Nilo. Now, that’s a welcome!
Imperatriz has been a favourite of our for many years. Their quadra is relatively humble, when compared to some of the others, and they don’t get a whole lot of ‘gringos’ at their rehearsal, possibly as their neighbourhood is considered dangerous by some. All we can say is that every time we have been there, we have not only felt safe, but welcomed, and included in the craic. It has been known for Masamba members to be dragged into the dance sections, and not be seen for 30-40 minutes! Also, in the last couple of years, our good friend Mestre Maurao, has been involved in the bateria, which is great, but Imperatriz is one of those samba schools where you don’t have to have ‘personal contacts’ to be made feel welcome.
As Carnaval draws near, the samba schools like to get out on the street to practice their parading skills. All groups get at least one chance to practice in the Sambadrome over the weekends immediately before carnaval, but samba schools will also organise parades within their localities. I’m not sure whether they seek permission or not, but they definitely get out there, stop the traffic and go for it. Again, these parades are a great opportunity to see everything up close, and they are also great craic. Because they occur on the streets, they are free of charge, and the only potential downside is that there is less security.
Street rehearsals are a little more random than Quadra rehearsals, in that exact times can vary a lot, depending on the weather, and other variables, but that is not to say that they are not worth making the effort for, because once you get there, they are an amazing spectacle! A good tip here is to keep an eye on the Instagram accounts for the chosen samba school on the day of a street parade, as there will often be some traffic there that will confirm whether rehearsals are happening. This year, we managed to see Unidos do Tuiuti and Vila Isabel practice on the street. Vila Isabel was a real prize, as we have had a terrible history of missing their rehearsals in the past – we were starting to believe that they didn’t actually exist!
Street rehearsals are great fun, and we developed a strategy of heading to the front of the samba school, and letting it all pass by, before heading to the front again. This way, you get to see all the dance sections, as well as the musicians.
We also swung by the Sambadromo one Saturday evening, to see Mocidade Independente do what is now as an ‘ensaio technical’ or technical rehearsal. This is where samba schools get an opportunity to rehearse in the sambadrome, which allows them to mirror as closely as possible, what it will be like on the big night. There are several key difference: The full sound system hasn’t been set up yet, so the dancers, and the audience, have to rely on a sound truck that accompanies the bateria. The performers don’t parade in costume, so things lines of sight, etc. have yet to be tested. Finally, there are no floats, as they are being kept back to be debuted at the main parade. There is also the logistical challenge of getting floats to and from the Sambadromo, but as many of the delays on the night of big parades are because of floats failing, this leaves some big worries for the organisers. The Sambadromo is open free to the public, and in some cases two or even three samba schools will parade in one night, so it is a cheap way of having a great night out. As many locals couldn’t possibly afford the high ticket prices to attend the official carnaval, the technical rehearsals are very popular, and if you want a good seat, you need to get there early, but don’t worry, there is always someone around to sell you a cold drink while you wait! Another benefit, is that these rehearsals ‘force’ the more distant samba schools to come into the city to practice. So, for example, the night we were there we got to see Mocidade, who’s base is quite far from the city centre in a neighbourhood called Padre Miguel. We have travelled to their quadra in the past, but it is the guts of an hour each way in a taxi, with taxi fare to match!
The main reason that we didn’t go to more of these sambadrome rehearsals, is that they clash with quadra rehearsals, but a serious samba devotee could go to the beginning of the sambadrome, and then head on to a quadra rehearsal.
Blocos are another important representation of carnaval, and for many, represent the authentic street carnaval of Rio. A bloco can be almost any group of people who meet to celebrate carnaval together in the public space. It can be just musicians, just drummers, just dancers, people in a themed costume, people in random costumes, or any combination of these. There is no set route, no need to enter a competition, or even to tell people you are performing. The scene has grown a lot in the last few years, as more people seek to be part of the action, rather than a spectator. Some blocos are very professional with trained musicians and dancers, good costumes, themed banners, etc. Some blocos are less about the quality of the performance, but more about expressing a vibe. All have something to contribute to the excitement of carnaval, but in all fairness, some are worth travelling to see and some aren’t.
I already mentioned that Julie (our girl in Sao Paulo) plays chocalho with one of the top blocos in Sao Paulo, called Bloco Me Lembra Que Eu Vou. These guys rehearse a set for months before bringing it out onto the streets, and even though I only sat in on a rehearsal, it was obvious that they take it seriously, while also having a lot of fun doing it.
In a quiet moment, I slipped off to catch a rehearsal of a bloco with a 15-year history, Volta Alice. The main reason for the visit was to see my old friend Gabriel Lopes, who directs the bateria there. The rehearsal was downtown in the narrow, crowded streets near the ferry port, and took a little bit of finding. Unlike the samba schools, blocos can be similar to the experience of a lot of Samba Bands in Ireland, in that it is a relaxed atmosphere that accepts all comers. There were clearly some good musicians there, but there were also a lot of people who probably only pick up an instrument for a couple of weeks around carnaval. After watching the rehearsal from the side-lines, Gabriel very kindly gave me his repinique and allowed me to join in – most of the material was familiar enough, and even some of the signals for grooves and breaks were recognisable, so it wasn’t too difficult.
While it was not my focus to get to play in Brasil, I’m never going to turn down the chance to play a little samba in its natural habitat! Rehearsals over, Gabriel was kind enough to ask me along to see the bloco’s performance a few days later in the Laranjeiras neighbourhood. I dutifully showed up for a parade that started at 9am(!), and everyone was there, ready to go – amazing! After Gabriel go the band up and running, he handed the repinique over to me, which again was very generous of him, given that I had only attended one rehearsal. Musically, the parade wasn’t hard work, but physically, it was hard going playing in the Rio heat. The parade was at a slow pace, and every so often, beers would magically appear, but it was still HOT! I had no idea how long the parade was due to go on for, so I decided that I would play for an hour, and then duck out. It was just as much fun to grab a beer and watch the general madness of carnaval unfold around me – crazy costumes, old friends, new friendships, music, dancing, eating and drinking – all on the streets of a beautiful old neighbourhood.
Workshops, Tourism & Friends
On previous trips, we have organised workshops ourselves, but as the group this year was quite small, we chose not to. However, as more and more musicians flock to Rio at carnaval time, there is always the opportunity to sit in on ‘public’ workshops. Last trip, we discovered an amazing venue/Workshop space/social space/instrument shop called “Maracatu Brasil’, which has teamed up with our friends at Contemporanea to deliver regular percussion workshops. This year, we had the opportunity to catch up with Stephen Brezet and Ricardo Guerra, who delivered an amazing workshop in hand percussion, mixing African, Brazilian, and Cuban rhythms. As almost everyone in the audience was a percussionist, there were plenty who were more than willing able to join in, and soon the mother of all timba jams was kicking off!
Rio being one of the most beautiful cities in the world, has no end of non-samba-related sights and sounds to savour. All of this year’s group had been to Rio at least once before, so there was no need to do the very obvious things such as visit the Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer, or the cable cars at Urca. We were looking for a couple of new experiences.
This year, we took a little dander down to visit the famed Cemitério de Sao Joao Batista. Visiting a graveyard may not sound too exciting, but as this one is in downtown Rio, many Brazilian legends are buried there – somewhat similar to Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. Annoyingly, there wasn’t a map or a guide to where all the most famous people were buried, but we did manage to find the graves of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Carmen Miranda and Santos-Dumont. It wasn’t just about the celebrities either, some of the grave stones and monuments are works of art in themselves. Photographs are discouraged, but I couldn’t help but grab a few snaps of this wonderland dedicated to death!
Another little ‘tourism’ stop was the Confeitaria Colombo, a spectacularly overwrought French style coffee salon in downtown Rio. It’s a bit like the Copacabana Palace in that it gives you an insight into what Rio must have been like in the 20s and 30s – the real heyday! It has to be said that the coffee was great, and service 2nd to none, but the waiters doing the hard-sell on their souvenirs let it down a little.
Finally, we decided one evening that we would take the plunge and go for the full churrascaria experience. A Churrascaria is a special type of Brazilian barbecue restaurant, that offers an all you can eat menu of the finest meats the country has to offer. It isn’t a cheap option, and we ended up going for one of the more expensive options, called Assador Rios (formally Porcao). It is right on the bay in Flemengo, and the website looked amazing, so off we went. It was amazing. Not just the food, but the ridiculously high level of service. There wasn’t a cheese board, there was a cheese TABLE in the place, and as promised the steak was amazing. There is no way that you could eat there every day, but as a once-off treat, it was well worth it.
A recurring theme in this blog is the value we place on genuine people and genuine hospitality. As Masamba members have been visiting Brazil for 20 years now, and many Brazilian artists have come to work with us in Dublin, we have built up a network of friends throughout the country. A trip back to Brazil is always an opportunity to try to catch up with as many of them as possible, time allowing. Of course, most of our musician friends are very busy in the run-up to carnaval, so we don’t get offended if we don’t get to see everybody, but on this trip, amongst others, we got to meet with Fernanda Amaral, Ari Colares, Claudio Santana, Feijao, Leao, & the guys from Du Rio, Gabriel Lopes, Mestre Maurao, all the team at Contemporanea and Jorge & Patricia Allen. The last people mentioned are especially important, as it was the Allen family who helped make our first trip to Brazil a success, and thankfully, 20 years later, we are still in keeping touch and meeting up when we can!
Counting down to the Brazil trip 2020!!!